Lonely Planet: Slightly Alive
My first-coffee reading over the past few weeks has been a daily round of wistful memories and farewell group emails from my comrades at Lonely Planet. While Casualty of the 2020 Covid-19 Pandemic may be the venerable travel publisher’s epitaph, the truth is more complicated. Some industry insiders (whose ranks include many Lonely Planet authors themselves) believe the company has been on its deathbed for years.
But maybe, just maybe, like Princess Bride’s Westley following his encounter with the Machine of Ultimate Torture, Lonely Planet is only mostly dead.
Follow me then, dear reader, on what may be my final article as Lonely Planet Author Joshua Samuel Brown. Like many of my travels over the past two decades, I’m not exactly sure where I’ll wind up. But I’m aiming for a hopeful place. After all, mostly dead is slightly alive.
The Author’s Credentials
I started working for Lonely Planet in 2006, authoring or co-authoring a dozen+ guidebooks and contributing at least four times that many articles for the company’s many publications. My time with the company overlapped two changes in ownership (three, counting the interim Wheeler / BBC period from 2007-2011) and several management changes.
Sometime between my second and third books, Lonely Planet went through a ground-shaking management shift as Tony and Maureen Wheeler sold 75% of the company to BBC Worldwide for £88.1 million, or US$133 million. The Wheelers would remain an integral part of the company until February of 2011, when they exercised their option to sell their remaining stake to the BBC.
My pre-BBC merger time with the company was pretty short. Prior to the merger, Lonely Planet was as awesome a company to work for as you’d imagine. In early 2007 I went to Australia to visit some friends and stopped into the famous Lonely Planet compound in Footscray. Despite being a small (and very new) fish in a big pond, I was given a warm welcome, shown around the compound and generally treated like family. I popped into Tony Wheeler’s office, and was gratified to see that the book I’d given him the year before had earned a spot in the company library. (Click here for the full scoop on how I landed my first Lonely Planet gig, if you want to go down that rabbit hole.)
My Lonely Planet Salad Days
People who’d been with the company longer than I have their own impression, but for me the BBC years were my Lonely Planet salad days. I returned to Taiwan, Singapore and Belize for more guidebook updates, as well as spending a month in China covering Yunnan province for what to this day remains among my most memorable LP trips (at least if the number of blog posts I churned out on that trip is an indicator).
Working for Lonely Planet was the ultimate remote gig. Outside of a few visits to various LP offices, a holiday party in Oakland I happened to be in town for and several sweet hangs with fellow LP people I was either working on projects with or ran into on the road, 99% of my interaction with editors, management and fellow writers were via email. From what I could tell, merger-years Lonely Planet blended the best aspects of English efficiency and Aussie laid back-ness (with bits and bobs of attitude and methodology from around the world thrown in, as befits a publishing company covering literally the whole planet).
Authors were largely free agents, working from contract to contract. Some of us had certain areas of specialty, and worked within the same pool of editors, authors and managers on multiple projects. Some authors were superstars, traveling the planet updating titles on multiple continents based on publishing schedules worked out well in advance via managerial alchemy designed to continually produce updated titles for destinations both on the rise and more niche. In general, all authors would pitch their services to editors in charge of various projects, with the editors making their decision based on multiple criteria including the author’s previous projects, their reputation for turning in good copy, contacts and experience in the target area and, of course, previous work on that specific title. In general, an author who’d done a good job on a title previously (and/or had a good working relationship with the editor to whom they were pitching) could expect favorable response to their pitch. I built working relationships with a few editors, and had a reputation as a highly dependable (though mildly quirky) author who turned in clean copy and didn’t miss deadlines. My geographical specialties were Taiwan, Belize, Singapore and China, so I worked with editors and writers who covered those areas, developing a camaraderie along the way which generally made things easier and more efficient.
My last guidebook project with Lonely Planet had me in Belize from November, 2012 until March 2013. It was my fourth trip around Belize, and my first time doing the book solo, so spending a whole season in Belize felt like a good idea. And here’s where the story gets weird.
In 2013 Lonely Planet again changed hands.
That BBC sold off Lonely Planet was more of a surprise to some than to others. There had been some ingratiation issues between old guard LP and new BBC hires, and some differences in opinion about how to incorporate a rapidly changing digital landscape into an old-school publishing business. But what surprised everyone I knew was the price (BBC wound up unloading LP for a paltry US$75 million, way less than what they’d paid the Wheelers for the company without even taking into account subsequent years of investment) and the purchaser, a previously unknown company called NC2 Media owned by an American billionaire named Brad Kelley, who’d made his fortune in the tobacco industry.
This article from CNN managed to take a fairly neutral view while still painting a picture of the unusual pairing in its title:
BBC sells Lonely Planet to U.S. cigarette billionaire: A reclusive American land owner and conservationist will take over the Lonely Planet brand — but what’s he going to do with it?
A lifelong consumer of British TV, I’d been happy to be working for a company that was part of the BBC family. Our new boss had earned billions getting poor people hooked on cheap tobacco, which caused me to make assumptions about his general ethos and worldview. By and large, my friends in the Lonely Planet author community’s feelings about the new management ranged from wary to deeply pessimistic.
The acquisition occupied a few news cycles, during which several LP authors were hit up for quotes by journalists from various noteworthy publications. This led to a directive through the usual internal channels that any further comments to media needed to be vetted with management. The overly ham-fisted tone seemed to confirm concerns among the authors that the new boss would be taking a distinctly more authoritarian approach to management than had previous management.
By this point social media (In its infancy when the Wheelers sold) was now a huge thing, and innocent enough things like hash-tag campaigns commemorating the Planet that was (#LPMEMORIES) were drawing enough ire from management to make authors wishing to stay with the company reconsider taking part. I’d already decided to take a few years away from travel (having lived the life of a fairly dedicated travel writer since before coming on board), I didn’t see myself doing any guidebooks for Lonely Planet until the next Belize update a few years down the road. But like other authors, I didn’t feel passionately enough about the issue to risk burning bridges with our beloved but swiftly tilting Planet. It’s probably for the best that I wasn’t asked for a quote, because if anyone had asked I’d have offered the following vaguely leftist analogy:
“Dr. Bronner’s Acquired by Dr. Phil*
Following the purchase, the company was quickly restructured. Old-guard editors who’d come from the Wheeler’s LP and survived various culling phases of the BBC partnership were mostly excised. While small crews worked from offices around the globe (including London, Dublin and Melbourne), a new head office was built in Franklin, Tennessee, a bucolic suburb of Nashville. While some editors and employees took offers to continue working for Lonely Planet at the new location, for many the prospect of relocating from urban centers like London, Melbourne and the Bay Area to a town located on the edges of America’s deep south proved a bridge too far.
With the company restructured and with many of the old editors replaced, many long-standing author-editor relationships evaporated. If management cared little about the dissolution of these relationships, they cared less about the feelings of longtime Lonely Planet authors. Within a year of the NC2 buyout, management announced that, moving forward, authors would be known as writers, with the change in title being applied everywhere from online forums to business cards. With everything else going on this seemingly minor alteration in nomenclature struck many as yet another way for new management to make clear their opinion that authors (now writers), once a critical part of the guidebook process, were an easily replaced cog in an increasingly indifferent machine.
I continued writing articles for Lonely Planet throughout the NC2 years, all in response to regular calls for pitches from editors in newly restructured editing teams. Some lovely books got made, and I had fun pitching articles that generally fell into either the category of Best In Food or Bucket List Places.
Though Lonely Planet was no longer my main source of income, I was still proud to be a small part of a company that only resembled the one I’d started at a decade earlier if you didn’t look at it too long.
Money, Politics and Other Dirty Words
Being the planet’s top travel authority is inherently political. Travelers bring money, and money brings influence. During the Wheeler years, Lonely Planet did its best to present a largely neutral editorial tone in the face of political pressure. Probably the best example of this was the company’s decision to publish its Burma title despite calls by some (both in and out of Burma) for a tourism boycott. The decision was based on the ethic that travel could be used as a force for good, and that travelers needed to be informed enough to make their own choices. This tradition of remaining beholden to no one nation or political group but to the planet as a whole and the needs of travelers in particular largely continued during the BBC years.
From my perspective, this neutrality evaporated following the NC2 acquisition.
Of the many non-guidebook titles released by Lonely Planet, the most important is the annual Best In Travel book, where writers and editors offer their choices for must-visit places for the coming year. I’d done a write-up for Belize in the previous edition, so I submitted Taiwan for the 2016 edition. It’s a competitive list, and Taiwan can be a touchy subject, so I was surprised to get an acceptance letter asking me to write up the entry. I wrote up 400 words, couching the thing in the language of strategic ambiguity often employed by the Taiwanese government itself.
I was surprised that they accepted it in the first place, so I’m not really sure why I was surprised to hear from one of the sub-editors that they’d decided to replace Taiwan with another entry pretty close to publishing time. The sub-editor alluded to issues with printers in China, but didn’t give me anything specific. I called the Destination Editor in charge of the region, and we had a short and strategically ambiguous conversation in which she gave no specific reason for the last-minute omission and I didn’t specifically accuse Lonely Planet of throwing Taiwan under the bus to appease China.
The only certainty I got from the conversation (outside of an assurance I’d be paid for my work) was a strong feeling that pushing the issue any further would lead to my losing any shot at future assignments from the editor now in charge of the region where I’d spent half my career as a travel writer.
This caused me a few days of the dark tea-time of the soul variety. Fair play for all had long been a cherished Lonely Planet value, and I thought about writing an article that might gently shame the company into changing course before coming to the conclusion that letting it go was the best course of action. Doing so would allow me to continue getting stories about Taiwan into various (if less prestigious) Lonely Planet projects, thus continuing to support Taiwan’s various ongoing cultural diplomacy initiatives.
I wrote a few more articles for Lonely Planet and kept including pitches about Taiwan where appropriate. In 2017, another editor picked an article I’d pitched about Taiwan’s emerging coffee scene for a World’s Best Coffee book. Three weeks after submission I got a letter from an LP staffer stating unambiguously that the company had bowed to pressure from China to keep Taiwan from being included in the book.
Though I wound up editing the text I’d written for Lonely Planet into a longer Taiwan coffee story for another magazine, it was clear to me that Lonely Planet’s days as an impartial gatekeeper in global travel was over. When the company dropped all pretenses of neutrality a couple of years later with their controversial decision to create sponsored content for the Saudi Arabian government, I didn’t bother feigning surprise.
Lonely Planet: A New Hope
Another day in quarantine, mid-May 2020 brings another round of wistful farewells from outgoing Lonely Planet employees, their centuries of cumulative talent, experience and brand loyalty being scattered to the four winds by their soon-to-be erstwhile employer.
But there is hope, if we squint enough to spot it.
Bored Billionaire Seeks Buyer for Legacy Travel Publisher?
Brad Kelley’s original motives in purchasing Lonely Planet remain a mystery. Articles about Mr. Kelley often refer to him as a reclusive billionaire. To summarize from his Wikipedia page, he’s worth two billion dollars (give or take) and, despite having made his fortune in the tobacco industry, is an ardent non-smoker. He’s also said to be a dedicated conservationist and equestrian. But even in 2013 (at fire-sale prices) purchasing a travel publishing company couldn’t have just been about the money.
One part of the Lonely Planet / NC2 timeline that bears mention is Mr. Kelley’s making a 24 year-old fresh college graduate named Daniel Houghton Lonely Planet CEO, a decision which struck many as a bit too close for comfort to the plot of 1994’s The Hudsucker Proxy. Though Houghton has since retired (at the tender age of 27), the theory that rapid elevation to CEO of one the planet’s largest travel publishing company was the whimsical decision of a boredom-prone billionaire is as good a theory as you’re going to get from me. And this bored billionaire theory gives me hope.
If Mr. Kelley is still bored owning a company whose future profitability is murky at best, it stands to reason that he might be interested in selling it at a reasonable market price. All we need do then is help locate a single billionaire (or a consortium of reasonably wealthy celebrities) looking for the undeniable coolness cachet that would come from owning Lonely Planet.
That the new owner would be able to hit the ground running by re-hiring an easily assembled crew of talented, well-traveled authors, editors and cartographers with fanatical brand loyalty is icing on the cake.
Here then is, in no particular order, an incomplete list of people who’d be welcome to fill in the blank of my nearly-done article’s final subhead:
Lonely Planet Purchased by ______________________
- Elon Musk: Billionaire, philanthropist, playboy, and, oh yeah, CEO of a company looking to expand mankind’s travel opportunities throughout the solar system. (Dibs on research for the first edition of Lonely Planet’s Guide to Titan.)
- Bono: Nobody’s every accused singer-songwriter-venture capitalist of playing it safe. As of this writing, Lonely Planet’s Dublin office is still open, and I’m sure everyone there (if anyone is still there) would be happy to let Bono kick the tires (so to speak) if he’d like to pop by.
- Enya: She’s creative, rich, and definitely well known for her love of privacy. The LP team has become accustomed to working for a reclusive boss. Our passports are ready, Enya. Let’s sail away…
- JK Rowling: What does the world’s wealthiest writer know about running a travel publishing company? I have no idea, but from what I can tell she’s pretty damned meticulous when it comes to planning her stories. I’m sure any of us would be glad to call this fellow creative our new boss.
- Richard Branson: Internationalist, travel dude and well-known cool guy to work for, I’d be happy to call Richard Branson boss. Not sure what the asking price of the company would be, but I’m pretty sure Sir Richard can scrape it up.
- Michael Palin: A few years before I came on board with Lonely Planet I was on an assignment in Yunnan, China, where I wound up working for three days with Michael Palin and his production company on his Himalaya project. At one point I got to translate for Mr. Palin as he sang The Lumberjack Song and Bright Side of Life to a group of bemused tribesman in Lake Lugu. Can Sir Michael afford to buy Lonely Planet? It hardly matters. The man is universally beloved and can probably ask the Queen to buy it for him.
- Ewan McGregor: I have no idea if Scottish actor has the time, money or inclination to run Lonely Planet, but he’s a known travel fanatic and I’d love to work for him. Perhaps he and Sir Michael can go in on it together?
- Cindy Gallop: OK, this was a suggestion from my partner, Stephanie Huffman, who assured me that Ms. Gallop would be an ideal owner for Lonely Planet with the quote “She’s revolutionizing the sex industry. Think what she could do for the travel industry.” After five minutes at Cindy Gallop’s website I’m totally on board.
The above list of course is incomplete, and I’m sure travel-industry friends and colleagues (or anyone else with skin in the game) might have other ideas for super-cool celebrities, billionaires or moneyed eccentrics with a passion for travel who might be interested in purchasing Lonely Planet. Circulate this article far and wide, travel friends! A new world is emerging from the old, and we’ll need guidebooks to navigate this perpetually changing, no less lonely landscape.
Thanks to Fodey.com for their very cool newspaper headline generator.